Why You Should Never Buy a Yellow Purse

Forget what’s trendy. Here’s the best reason to stick to the basics.

July 31, 2012

You probably don’t associate your purse with major health problems—unless you’re talking about those shoulder pains you get from loading it up with everything but the kitchen sink. But a new report from environmental health scientists in California may give you pause the next time you gravitate toward that trendy bag.

Recently, the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Oakland, California, tested 300 purses and wallets from 21 national online and brick-and-mortar retailers located in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Amazon.com, Forever 21, and Neiman Marcus, for lead contamination. Results showed that lead in 43 purses, handbags, and wallets exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm), a limit California set for purses in 2010. Even more upscale brands fell prey to lead paint: A $200 Tory Burch wallet purchased from Neiman Marcus had 58,700 ppm lead, 195 times higher than the set standard.


Though lead is prohibited for use in children’s products and can’t exceed 600 ppm in house paint, there is no federal law restricting lead in purses or other consumer products intended for adults. “We usually see this problem in faux leather, vinyl, and different kinds of plastics that have bright colors,” says Charles Margulis, communications director at the Center for Environmental Health (CEH). That’s doubly disturbing because such bags are often marketed as “vegan” or “eco-friendly”—labels that imply they’re better than animal leather, which doesn’t contain as much lead.

This is the second go-round for the group when it comes to lead in purses. In 2009, they conducted a similar test and found similarly high levels of lead in a wider percentage of the 300 purses they tested. As a result, the group worked with 40 leading retailers and reached a legal agreement that set the 300 ppm limit for lead in handbags and other accessories. The CEH conducted this round of testing to ensure that retailers were sticking to their end of the agreement. “We wanted to see if the industry in general was cleaning up,” Margulis says.

These numbers are a decent improvement from past lead tests, he says, acknowledging that purse makers have made noteworthy progress. “But we still think the industry can do a lot better.”

Lead is no joke when it comes to your health. Every major medical and public health organization in the world has admitted that there is no safe level of exposure to this toxic metal, which does more than just impair neurological development in children. It builds up in the bones and fatty tissue of adults, leading to serious late-in-life problems such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney failure. Some scientists suspect it could even be linked to Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.

For women hoping to protect their health and steer clear of lead, Margulis offers a few shopping tips:

• Steer clear of brightly colored accessories
Lead acts as a stabilizer to preserve the color of really bright hues, particularly in the yellow and red family. It’s pretty rare to find a high lead content in a black or brown bag, Margulis says. These colors might not be as fun to flaunt, but at least you’ll lessen your chances for health issues, which, in addition to those mentioned above, include mood disorders, infertility, and memory loss.

• Stick with real leather or canvas
The tests rarely revealed lead in real leather bags. It’s more of a problem in vinyl, polyurethane, and other leather alternatives made from plastic, Margulis says. If you want to avoid animal products entirely, buy a canvas bag. (Can’t find one you like? Check out this Summer Bag Everyone Needs to Buy.)

• Shop smart
Though countless retailers sell products that contain lead, here are some well-known brands that tested positive for lead at levels that exceeded the 300 ppm limit:

- 5-7-9
- Rainbow
- Big Buddha
- Forever 21
- Guess
- House of Harlow 1960
- Tory Burch
- Lodis
- Ralph Lauren
- Nine West